A Precious Gift: On Edythe Haber’s “Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter”

Robert Chandler celebrates the publication of “Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter” by Edythe Haber.

A Precious Gift: On Edythe Haber’s “Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter”

Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter by Edythe Haber. I.B. Tauris. 304 pages.

THE BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION in October 1917 is central to the history of the last century; subsequent wars, revolutions, and other crises throughout the world are almost impossible to discuss without reference to it. The Russian experience of emigration and exile has a similarly archetypal character. Between one and two million people — monarchists, democrats, non-Bolshevik socialists, and people simply trying to escape hunger — left the Russian Empire after the Revolution; this too set a pattern that has been followed only too often.

Anyone wishing to understand 1917 and its consequences can hardly do better than to read Teffi. She writes with unfailing grace, wit, and intelligence. Her memoir of Lenin is perceptive. The sketches and articles she published during her last years in Russia vividly evoke the chaos of the Revolution itself. And she paints a convincing picture of the Russians in Paris — in their often desperate poverty, with their compulsion to keep up pretenses, and with all the vicious schisms that so often bedevil the world of exiles.

The 20th century will be remembered not only for its wars, revolutions, genocides, and mass displacements of people. It will also be remembered as a time of women’s emancipation. Here, too, Teffi is an emblematic figure. The greatest of the many tragedies she experienced may have been the sacrifice she made to become a writer — and her resolute silence about this testifies to the depth of her pain.

Aged 20, Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya — as she was then called — married a lawyer, Vladislav Buchinsky. Her life with him in a succession of provincial towns was deeply unhappy. Six years later, she left her husband and three children and returned to Petersburg. In Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter, the first biography of the writer in any language, Edythe Haber writes:

Her abandonment of her little daughters, while troubling, is perhaps more understandable in the light of family law at the time, which gave fathers exclusive guardianship of minor children. The existence of a third child, however, a son, Janek, who was a mere infant, adds greater moral complexity to her decision.

Haber goes on to detail the lengths Teffi went to in order to excise Janek from her life story. Few of her friends in the émigré world appear to have known that he ever existed.

Teffi’s sense of guilt — no doubt compounded by Janek’s death during World War I — must have been overwhelming. Nevertheless, the words she wrote nearly 50 years later in a letter to her elder daughter, Valya, have the ring of truth. After confessing to having been a bad mother, Teffi backtracks: “In essence I was good, but circumstances drove me from home, where, had I remained, I would have perished.” It is indeed hard to imagine how a woman as gifted and independent-minded as Teffi could have survived for long in a stultifying marriage. Had she not, literally, “perished,” she might well have become one of the mad, unhappy eccentrics who figure in many of her stories. And with time, as Haber writes in her biography and elsewhere, Teffi seems to have managed to repair at least some of the damage caused by her departure and to have established a good and trusting relationship with her daughters. This same letter to Valya continues, movingly, “Everything you do for me I take not as my due, but as a rare gift to me from heaven through you.”

Haber is a scrupulous scholar and she has been researching Teffi’s life and work for 40 years. She takes nothing for granted and backs all her assertions with definite evidence. What emerges most strikingly from her detailed chronicle is Teffi’s resilience. She had the courage to break with her husband. She survived a number of life-threatening health crises, including Spanish flu, typhus, and at least two heart attacks. She adapted, around the age of 50, to life in a new country. Most important of all, she repeatedly reinvented herself as a writer.

By 1910, within 12 years of leaving her husband and adopting the pseudonym by which everyone soon came to know her, Teffi was a literary superstar. Her satirical sketches had won her an extraordinary degree of popularity. Candies and perfumes were named after her, and her admirers included both Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin. And then, in 1916, she published The Lifeless Beast, a wide-ranging collection treating entirely new themes, and written in an entirely different tone from that of her previous books.

Among much else, The Lifeless Beast is one of the few works of Russian literature to address ordinary people’s experience of World War I. Yavdokha, the eponymous protagonist of one of the most memorable stories, has no companion but a hog and is hunchbacked from living for years in a low-ceilinged hut. She is as alienated from the other peasants around her as she is from everything to do with the Russian state. After someone has read aloud to her a letter with news of her son’s death at the front, she repeats the word “War” but seems unable to attach any real meaning to it and fails to take in the fact that her son has died. Other notable stories in the collection evoke the inner worlds of lonely, traumatized children with a bleakness and emotional intensity for which there was no literary precedent in any language I know.

With The Lifeless Beast, aspects of which anticipate the work of Samuel Beckett, Teffi had moved far beyond her audience. Unable to imagine the popular writer as capable of anything but light comedy, a reviewer even criticized Teffi — absurdly — for mocking Yavdokha. But Teffi continued to develop. With each decade, she mastered new styles and subject matter. In the 1920s, she established herself as the most perceptive chronicler of the grotesquely isolated little world of the Russian community in Paris; these stories were eventually collected in the volume Little Town (1927). The stories in Witch (1936), all titled after different folkloric beings, constitute a nostalgic memorial to Teffi’s childhood and the Russia she had lost; they also anticipate magic realism and the work of Angela Carter. And in “And Time Was No More,” the longest and most important of the stories from her postwar volumes, Teffi abandoned coherent narrative altogether, adopting stream-of-consciousness techniques to convey, with her usual fluent grace, the musings and visions of a woman moving in and out of a morphine-induced trance as she floats half-willingly, half-unwillingly, toward death.

Haber is unassuming. For the main part, she limits herself to ascertaining the bare facts of Teffi’s life — a difficult enough task in itself. But when Haber does come out with her own interpretations, they are always interesting and considered. There are two questions to which she returns more than once. The simpler of these is whether Teffi should be considered a “humorist.” Teffi’s own feelings about this label were ambivalent. On the one hand, she saw laughter — and the ability to evoke laughter — as a precious gift. Her first collection of stories bore an epigraph from Spinoza: “For laughter is a joy — and can therefore be seen as a good in itself.” There is no reason to think that she ever went back on this view. On the other hand, Teffi resented the degree to which, throughout her life, she was pigeonholed as a comic writer. Haber writes, “Until the end Teffi disliked the title of humorist. ‘I have almost never been a humorist in the full sense of the word,’ she wrote Zeyeler in June 1952. ‘That is, I have not sacrificed the literary worth of a work in the name of laughter.’”

The other question Haber dwells on is whether Teffi was misanthropic. To my mind, Haber is over-ready to suggest this of her, but in her final chapter, after quoting an exchange between Teffi and her fellow émigré writer and critic Mark Aldanov, she comes to a characteristically balanced conclusion. Aldanov had categorized Teffi’s writing as zloi (unkind, angry, cruel), and this had made Teffi indignant. In a second letter of protest, Teffi wrote, “How many ecstatic, heart-felt letters I’ve received from readers. […] I’ve received tender letters from dying old women thanking me precisely for my tenderness, and from those going off to war […] No, I don’t think I’m zloi.” Teffi titled one of her best collections of stories On Tenderness (1938), and tenderness was certainly one of the qualities she most valued.

After quoting the assessment of another contemporary émigré critic, Georgy Adamovich, that, in Teffi’s work, “the deformities of ordinary life are […] tightly intertwined with a belief in life’s primordial beauty and purity,” Haber ends this section with a discussion of an article Teffi wrote about Gogol. This was the last publication Teffi saw into print and can perhaps be read as a kind of literary testament; in it she criticizes Gogol for not really liking his characters, for treating them merely as masks — not as people with souls. Haber concludes, “Teffi, who showed such pity toward suffering humanity, is implicitly distinguishing herself from Gogol and refuting Aldanov’s characterization of her as a zloi writer.”

Haber is an exemplary biographer. Reading this book, though, made me feel all the more frustrated that scholars have yet to do for Teffi’s work what Haber has done for her life. During the last 10 years, Memories — Teffi’s recollections of her escape from the Bolsheviks — and some of her stories have been translated into a great many languages. Many popular editions of Teffi have been published in Russia, but all too often they comprise more or less the same selection of stories, focusing largely on what Teffi wrote before emigrating. And there is still a great deal — including the important essay on Gogol — that has never been republished at all and can only be found in a rather small number of specialist libraries. As an example of the treasures that await discovery, here is a translation of one of her brief sketches about the Russian émigrés in Paris.

from The Violet Notebook

One wonders about our refugee children, with no memories of the old Russia. What kind of image do they have of her?

First, some kind of perpetual borsch. Borsch with kasha, borsch with fatback, borsch with cheese pastries, borsch with ham. With whatever was to hand in that province.

Next, there were towns and landscapes in the provinces. The towns were the homes of provincial governors. The paysages were the home of the paysans or peasants.

The provincial governors were most gracious and they smiled welcomingly.

The peasants were the talented Russian people. They sang the songs of the Russian people and ate the dishes of the Russian people.

As well as governors and peasants, there were various regiments, in which there were officers. The wives of these officers, around eighty thousand of them, surged out during the Revolution into Europe and America.

The fourth estate in Russia was composed of Dostoyevsky’s demons in two volumes. They were only in two volumes, but they were still able to corrupt minds and deprave morals.

There was an explosion. The governors were flung out. Strange though it may seem, half of Dostoyevsky’s demons were flung out too. Into Europe.

“Well, evil spirits, have your intrigues helped you?”

The governors were flung out backwards. They are now writing memoirs.

Dostoyevsky’s demons were flung out looking forwards. They’ve turned to journals and newspapers.

In foreign lands both governors and demons have forgotten their former squabbles. They’ve become chums. They drink to their new intimacy and address one another as “Ty.” Together they enjoy the borsch of every province.

“So I gave orders for you to be arrested back then, did I?”

“Yes, that’s right. We were preparing a bomb for you.”

“Must note that in my memoirs. Waiter, encore de kasha!”


Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include works by Alexander Pushkin, Vasily Grossman, Andrey Platonov, and Teffi. He has also written a short biography of Pushkin and compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov, and, with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. His latest translation is Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad (NYRB Classics, 2019).

LARB Contributor

Robert Chandler’s translations from Russian include works by Alexander Pushkin, Vasily Grossman, Andrey Platonov, and Teffi. He has also written a short biography of Pushkin and compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales, and, with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. His latest translation is Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad (NYRB Classics, 2019).


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